Snow Camping 101 — Denali Training

Post by blogger | December 7, 2009      

Our first trip as a group, just some roadside camping at 9,000 feet in Colorado’s Elk Mountains to test a variety of gear. Luckily it was cold and snowed a bunch. We even had wind to top off the experience.

Denali training, luckily it was cold.

That's 3 POINT 5 not 35. Denali training, luckily it was cold.

With this year’s shallow snowpack, we couldn’t dig a pit for the kitchen tent but the BD Megamid still cut the breeze. The ‘Mid’s wind performance is counter intuitive, as you’d think something that sticks up in the sky like that would get a lot of wind effect. But the pyramid shape compensates for that by the upper area having much less surface than the lower, more stable sides. We’d like the ‘Mid to have better ventilation while running two MSR XGK flamethrower stoves, so we’ll add a draft tube to the top of the tent during sewing sessions this winter. Next testing session will include a bunch of backcountry skiing, so cooking will be even more important!

The Hilleberg Nammatj 3 tent we’ve been testing was quick to set and did well in the wind. This tent could sleep three people, but we concluded that for extended use we’d rather have two people in it. So we’re still working on our tent plan.

The cooktent.

The cooktent. Steam marks cloud of carbon monoxide that can be quite detrimental on a long trip, as CO accumulates in your blood and has a compounded effect after multiple exposures.

Our food planning is going well. Tyler and Colby’s chicken stroganoff was a good feed. We experimented with some quinoa for hot breakfast cereal. It didn’t cook fast enough, so we’ll amend that to quinoa flakes. We’ll of course have some oatmeal as well, and bacon/eggs every few days. Might as well eat at least as well as the guys in club fed. That’s the theory, anyhow.

The crew, missing two.

The crew, missing two. The North Face Himalayan parkas work super well if you adjust everything to them being your outer layer. I wore mine for two hours sitting around camp in the dark at three degrees F, and was comfortable with nothing on under it but a wool baselayer top and thin softshell jacket. Apparently these things are quite popular as city wear, especially in places like Prague. According to Jordan, who was just there, Czech street style is a tight fitting Himalayan with a t-shirt on underneath -- worn in 50 degree temperatures. Perhaps some gold chains as well, for effect?

Night temperature fell to single digits, around three degrees F at the lowest before the snowstorm moved in. I used a combo of lightweight down bag inside synthetic North Face Tundra. The combo was plenty warm, though if I go this route I’ll mod the liner bag so it’s fixed to the outer.


Megalite in its element.

I brought my digital infrared “gun” thermometer along. Enlightening. For example, at three degrees F external temperature, internal temp in the double wall Nammatj climbed to around 20 degrees F soon after Nick and I were in there. As an experiment we closed all the tent vents for the night. Even with totally breathable interior fabric and wind we got a lot of condensation and ice rain. As I’ve known for years but try to forget, even the most breathable fabrics tend to move water vapor poorly in single digit or below temps. We’ll try more venting during the next trip. Despite all this yammering and planning regarding tents, I’m still a fan of snow caves and igloos when temps drop to extreme levels or the wind howls.

Nammatj 3

Nammatj 3 at home where its heart is.

Too bad we didn’t have much snow to build block walls or igloos out of. Perhaps next time. Meanwhile, we’re still working on food planning and gear procurement.

Nick removing stage makeup using white gas spray from MSR XGK cookstove. (just kidding)

Nick removing stage makeup using white gas spray from MSR XGK cookstove.

Big Agnes lightweight chair kit.

Big Agnes Cyclone lightweight chair kit. Big Jordan testing.

One last thing. Louie researched chair kits and found the super light Cyclone Chair from Big Agnes. Beefier chair kits might be appropriate for long summer backpacking trips when you’re sitting around on sharp rocks or sticks, but for snow camping the Cyclone appears near perfect. Nice find, since at 6.5 ounces the Cyclone really does save significant mass over other chair kits.


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28 Responses to “Snow Camping 101 — Denali Training”

  1. Lou December 7th, 2009 11:31 am

    Jeez Riley, you could at least say something when you visit us. Pretty crass.

  2. Riley December 7th, 2009 11:27 am

    For the latest Utah Ski Report, check out

  3. Joe December 7th, 2009 12:28 pm

    Looks like I missed out on some good test conditions guys :blush:
    Mom was happy though, and that’s important :biggrin:
    Now SNOW baby SNOW!

  4. Chris December 7th, 2009 12:43 pm

    how were the sleeping pads?

  5. Lou December 7th, 2009 5:20 pm

    Chris, I used the Exped Downmat 7 Pump. The hand pump didn’t work all that well, tiring and slow especially on the soft snow surface under the tent floor.The pad was incredibly warm, however, and they have some other ways of pumping it up so it was a winner for me (I’ll bring something that’ll pump it up easier, such as their “Shrinkbag” and “Pumptube.”

  6. Steven December 7th, 2009 4:51 pm

    Are you still loving the XGK? I am treating myself to a new stove this Christmas and I think it might be the one.

  7. Caleb Wray December 7th, 2009 6:36 pm


    I used a Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus. No issues with cold at all for me either. I think we will continue to test sleeping systems. On my previous trip up we took inflatible mats and closed cell foam, to reduce heat loss and add comfort.

    I was hoping that since the insulating abilities of the newest inflatible mats has improved so much, we would be able to reduce bulk by leaving the closed cell at home. The complicating factor is still what to do if the inflatible mat malfunctions beyond repair. The closed cell would be a nice backup.

    I incurred an unrepairable mat malfunction on a long trip last year and just had to deal with it until I got back to the states. That would be a serious problem in Alaska.

  8. Caleb Wray December 7th, 2009 7:14 pm


    For a trip like this (lots of snow melting) I am not aware of a stove that can compete. As Lou stated “flamethrower”. And pretty simple to clean and

    It’s definitely not the most versatile stove out there though. In fact, with the exception of extended duration cold weather trips, I rarely use mine.

  9. Lou December 7th, 2009 8:45 pm

    XGK is the way. All our cooking will be planned for that stove. Yeah, there might be something as good or almost as good out there, and yeah, some stoves simmer better. But some of us can field strip an XGK with our eyes closed, and simmer is not even a word in our language. It cooks bacon. That’s enough.

  10. brian December 7th, 2009 9:11 pm

    Having guided a few trips up there years ago, I spent a ton of tent time in the Alaska Range. 17 of those days were spent at 17K. Talk about crappy summit weather! Anyway, snow shelters definitely rule for moisture management and for the fact that you actually have to go outside to see what the weather is doing. Makes for a quiet night and minimal drips in the a.m. when the stove fires. On the other hand, I was nearly buried alive in a snow cave during a long storm. Didn’t know the vent hole was covered under 3 feet of snow until the butane lighters all seemed to malfunction at the same time. Hmmm, can you say, “low O2?” Scary. The nice thing about tents is that even when it’s cloudy, the UV radiation still penetrates and warms the structure during the day so it’s pleasant to hang out. Caves and igloos are still ice boxes.

  11. ScottP December 8th, 2009 2:40 am

    I’ve been living in Paris for the last two months and I can corroborate the “Euro-style” of the North Face puffy. The Parisians all break out TNF down jackets as soon as the mercury hits 50F (though it has yet to get below 35F; and here I am making do with a regular fleece!). Of course, in Los Angeles you also see people breaking out TNF down in the winter, and there it almost never gets below 45F! And it’s invariably TNF; no other brand will do for those that require heavy duty expedition gear for mild city conditions.

    I would wager that it’s TNF’s status as a fashion status symbol that has led to it lagging behind its competitors in innovation the past few years. And it’s certainly nothing new. Remember about a decade ago when no girl in her mid-20’s would be caught dead without a TNF Denali fleece? I bet that a large portion of TNF’s revenue comes from the “outdoor gear as a fashion accessory” market segment. I think that would also explain why TNF is nearly immune to sales and markdowns; to these people, decreasing the price decreases its desirability. It is to their credit that they haven’t dumbed down their products for this, but because of it I’ve seen a lot less TNF on the mountain and a lot more OR, Cloudveil, Mountain Hardwear,, and Marmot, to name a few. I mean, why pay full price when you can get something as good or better on sale or gear deal for substantially less?

  12. Jacques December 8th, 2009 6:12 am

    Chair kits? are you guys serious? It might be that I am European… but 0 oz. and just carving a chair in snow or leaning against a buddy. sound lighter..? than 6 Oz.
    And am wondering how much time you really just spend hanging outside. I would prefer to keep on my feet and stay a bit warmer or just jump in the sleeping bag.

    Do agree that pure thick closed cell foam can be bulky, but in the end I would still keep with just pure thick 30 mm closed cell foam. Which works even great outdoors (as long as it is still freezing).

    But all sounded like a fun good try out… hmm just suddenly got an urge for winter camping again! Thanks and good luck with everything!

  13. Lou December 8th, 2009 7:21 am

    Jacques, you mean the fuel cell system we have for heating the tents might be too much?

  14. sightseer December 8th, 2009 8:44 am

    Great info – thanks for sharing. We are planning a camping trip to ‘Big Hump’ Mountain in the Smokies in Feb – It may not get THAT cold, but gotta get ready for the teens. Time for a new sleeping bag!

  15. Nick December 8th, 2009 12:34 pm

    I took an ALPS Mountaineering Lightweight Series Air Pad (1.5″), which I’m not very pleased with, but did the job fine when paired with a ridgerest foam pad. I had a 0 degree down REI bag, but put it inside my Bibler bivy for some extra warmth. Didn’t get cold all night.

    The XGKs kicked ass. I had to take mine apart to clear the jet at one point, but that was easy and good practice.

    Got about 2 feet up in the Marble area overnight (so I hear), so next time we go, we’ll have some more snow to work with!

  16. Omr December 8th, 2009 12:39 pm

    Lou, what kind of sled do you use? Kmart special? I’ve used a ice-fishing haul sled but kind of heavy, the upside is it has deep walls so good for containing gear. Just so heavy. . .

  17. Caleb Wray December 8th, 2009 3:43 pm


    Carving a chair in the snow works great when you are outside, but what about when you are in a tent waiting out a storm, fixing a broken piece of gear, or typing a blog for using expensive electronic gear? I’ll take a nice comfy chair in a nice comfy tent for these tasks.

  18. Ryan December 8th, 2009 7:35 pm

    TNF does over $250 million in “Denali” named products alone, the bulk of that being Denali jackets for men, women and kids.

    They aren’t the only ones who do the “fashion expedition” thing. People in urban areas (Chicago,NYC, etc.) deserve good gear as well but when it’s 45 degrees out I don’t know that you need 3lbs. of 700 fill down.

    The camp chair thing seems a bit sily and the closed cell pad is your backup for the inflatable pad and it’s your seat in the cooktent. Oh and seats will more than likely already be chopped from departing parties so you can plop your cook tent over their hole and settle in.

  19. Lou December 8th, 2009 8:34 pm

    Omr, at this point I’ve got an older Mountainsmith pulk and a Wilderness Experience. I’ve used them quite a bit. Never been that impressed by sledging. I’ll probably bring the Mountainsmith to AK. But I might just do as the locals do and use whatever.

  20. Charlie Davis December 8th, 2009 9:50 pm

    hey Lou,

    I’m enjoying following your preparations for the trip – Peter & I still plan to take a shot at it in the next few years as well. We’re doing a trip to Rainer In June as a warm up. Best of luck, Charlie

  21. Crizzler December 8th, 2009 11:33 pm

    Nice call on the MegaMid. I’ve had one for years and nothing is better for snow camping. It’s been with me on Rainier, Shasta numerous times, Sierra haute route.. The floorless design lets you carve out benches, cooking platforms, sleeping platforms, and dig a deep entry so you can stand up while changing. The absolute best part though is when nature calls in the middle of the night you can zip open your bag and take care of business right there, while laying down! (#1 only!). I’m very jealous of your upcoming trip. Have fun!

  22. Joel Gratz December 9th, 2009 1:32 am

    Lou et al – glad to see the weather cooperated for your test. Should be some pretty deep snow out there with the Schofield Pass SNOTEL showing about 2 fresh feet (at about 11:1 or 12:1 snow-to-liquid). Maybe it’s time for some ski/boot testing, eh?

  23. Jacques December 9th, 2009 4:35 am


    You got me on those points…
    I am the type that doesn’t even take a book along… but while you are expedition bloging .. to keep us informed… well yeah better create some comfort so your typing for more then just 3 lines!

    Thanks for the feedback!

  24. harpo December 9th, 2009 12:13 pm

    Where do you get quinia flakes? My favorite backcountry staple is whole wheat cous cous. Just pour boiling water over it, and it is good to go in 10 minutes, though you might have to put the water/cous cous combi over a flame for a little while if it is very cold out or at altitude.

  25. Thomas B December 14th, 2009 3:17 pm

    Lou, there’s a stack of sleds for your use at base camp, just your basic plastic sled.
    Instead of pissing on the floor of your megamid, bring a pee bottle and empty it in the morning in the main pee hole at camp. Beware the cavernous pee hole at base camp.
    If everyone pee’d outside their tent on Denali the west buttress would be very yellow indeed.

    Lou, how about just using the name we all use , it’s Denali to us, none of this “Mt Mckinley” stuff.

  26. Lou December 14th, 2009 3:49 pm

    Thomas, yep, pee bottles are always used…

    I do use Denali mostly, but it’s still McKinley as well, so I use that name on occasion so Google can index, and for clarity. And yes, it’s fun to call it Denali. We called it McKinley when I climbed it in 73, does doing it as Denali count as a different mountain? :angel:

  27. Camping Carooners December 25th, 2009 11:58 am

    Wow, love the new and creative products. My wife and I are camping fanatics and some of these would be great tools to take along for the trip. Thanks!

  28. Dan January 3rd, 2010 1:23 pm

    Gee Whiz info: I used a VBL inside of my Marmot Penguin Bag (Gortex shell) on Big Mac (aka Denali) in the 80s. There was no significant loss of loft and almost no icing issues with the Penguin. My two partners, experienced 8000 meter peak baggers, did not use VBLs, experienced significant loss of loft in their bags and generally slept much less comfortably than I did. Also, on the basis of a recommendation from one of the premier US alpinists at that time, we cut a piece of 1/8 inch, closed cell foam to fit the floor of our tent, in addition to our sleep pads. While a bit bulky, the foam doesn’t weigh much and it confers significant benefits: keeps your sleeping bag and other gear dry (dry floor), minimizes tent frost issues and seemed to keep our tent about 10 degrees warmer than other tents that we visited. The foam liner also works miracles in a snow cave. And, when the wind and snow are blowing, one will find that shell pants/bibs with a crotch zip rule! Good luck on Denali.

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